Island Entertainment gears up for the future

By Julian Wise - May 4, 2006

A familiar face on the Vineyard, Jamie Alley is back at Island Entertainment as assistant manager, working with Anne Evasick who bought the business last November. Photos by Ralph Stewart

Two decades ago Bob Dutton opened Island Entertainment, a niche video store on Union Street in Vineyard Haven specializing in classic black and white films. Armed with an inventory of 300 videotapes and faith in the good taste of Island customers, Mr. Dutton launched an unlikely upstart in a business dominated by the larger stores Sight and Sounds and Video House. Today Sight and Sounds and Video House are dim memories while Island Entertainment has become the premier destination for everything from new releases to obscure cult documentaries. On Nov. 8, 2005 the Island angle was returned to Island Entertainment when longtime manager Anne Evasick purchased the business from its off-Island owner. With the aid of assistant manager Jamie Alley, the business is entering the next chapter of its storied history.

When Island Entertainment outgrew its Union Street location, Mr. Dutton moved the store to its current site on State Road. In the early 1990s Mr. Dutton sold the business to David Sears, a New York-based businessman who owned video stores in New York and New Jersey. Mr. Sears hired Anne Evasick in 1991 as store manager. When Mr. Sears made the decision to retire last year and liquidate his holdings in the video business, he offered Ms. Evasick the business

"Most people assumed I owned it anyway because I was here all the time," Ms. Evasick says. "When the opportunity came along, I'd been running it like I owned it anyway; it seemed to make sense."

Ms. Evasick, a Connecticut native, was bitten by the film bug while vacationing on the Vineyard in 1970. The culprit: a Marx Brothers film showing at the old Second Story Cinema in Vineyard Haven. "From that point on there was no looking back," she says.

After gaining experience in movie theater management in Fishkill, N.Y. and Keene, N.H., she moved to Martha's Vineyard in 1977 to work at the local movie theater. "When Elvis died I heard it in the standby line," she says.

Ms. Evasick was with Island Entertainment from the very beginning, helping Mr. Dutton paint the shelves at the Union Street location. When the opportunity to manage Island Entertainment came to her in 1991, it seemed like a natural fit.

Jamie Alley had been affiliated with the store since 1989, working full-time through most of the 1990s. He's recognized by customers for his bustling work habits and his encyclopedic knowledge of cinema arcana.

"The other night I had someone come in looking for a movie about a couple that adopt a child and it's in black and white," he says. "I knew the movie was "Penny Serenade." She was flabbergasted I knew it from that description."

In 2002, Mr. Alley moved to Boston where he became manager of Mike's Movies, an independent video store in the Dorchester area. Mr. Alley encountered numerous urban ills in the drug and crime-ridden area. "I was held up at gunpoint one time," he says. "Coming home another time late at night from a Friday night shift I found a body on the street. It was a little different from the Vineyard."

When Ms. Evasick offered him the opportunity to return to Island Entertainment, he accepted. He currently splits the week between the Vineyard and Boston, where he's active in The Tribe, a large improv troupe. He will direct a theatrical production next year at Footlight Club in Jamaica Plain, America's oldest operating community theater since 1877.

Ms. Evasick says having Mr. Alley back on the team is a major boon for the store. "It means everything," she says. "It's like getting the other half of my brain back."

Shelves which once held newly released videotapes have been cleared and renovated to display new DVDs. The film industry soon will release DVDs only, as VHS tapes become obsolete.

Major changes underway
Six months into the new phase, the two are continuing to spruce up the store and prepare for more changes. The new release shelves have been rebuilt and are now stocked with DVDs instead of VHS tapes, a nod to the industry-wide shift to the disc format. On June 1, film companies will cease production of VHS tapes and release solely on DVD. The store plans to sell part of its VHS collection while retaining the core library of quality VHS films that built the store. Many hard-to-find titles are unavailable on DVD, and numerous customers still retain both formats at home. The store will soon acquire a DVD resurfacing machine to help repair and preserve DVDs. The two plan to upgrade the computer system to accommodate prepayment of rentals in addition to the current payment-on-return policy.

"For me, the business is not about collecting late fees," Ms. Evasick says. "It's about people taking out a movie they will enjoy."

The biggest change at the store is Ms. Evasick's liberty to make decisions without an owner's oversight. "I have a much freer hand in what we can get and not get. I get to clean out a lot of the inventory that doesn't rent and replace it with things that we hope will. If people are looking for a particular movie I feel freer to order it, which means we have a more eclectic collection now than ever."

Island Entertainment built its reputation as a place to find everything from new releases to obscure cult films. Its foreign and documentary sections dwarf those of most other stores. It's also known for a witty staff of film buffs who can provide recommendations or help locate obscure titles. In an era of Netflix and film downloads, Mr. Alley says the personal touch is what gives an independent video store the edge. "We have the advantage of knowing our inventory, knowing our stock," he says. "If you come in looking for a movie, we can find it for you."

Mr. Alley cites other flaws with the current state of chain video stores. "A lot of stores do not carry classic titles anymore. Their foreign selection is not great and their independent selection is minimal. If you've been to a Blockbuster, you see they don't carry past a certain level. Some have edited versions. Which is not to say we're trying to warp the minds of American youth, but people have a right to see the movies the way they were made."

"We're here to guide you and to suggest, and to beware of "Bewitched," Ms. Evasick adds.

"When people come in and ask for "12 Angry Monkeys" we can correct them," Mr. Alley replies.

Longtime customer Jonathan Revere of West Tisbury praises the store, remarking "As Queen Victoria might have said, 'we are amused.' The appeal of the store is the people who run it and the movies. I was customer Number 189, one of the first when Bob Dutton had it. It's a great place."

The dialogue between customers and staff is a major component of the store's success. Many titles on the shelf were purchased in response to customers' requests.

"We can actually listen to what people want," Ms. Evasick says. "I have open ears if there's something you want to see."

"People who work in an independent movie store love movies and are passionate about it," Mr. Alley adds. "They like to listen to your opinions. So many people say you can't go to a chain store and get a salient recommendation because the people aren't as up on the movies and don't have the passion. This store is full of life... and dogs."

Indeed, one of the features of the store is the rotating cast of canines appearing at the store. One can spot everything from stately Bernese Mountain dogs to aristocratic poodles behind the counter. Ms. Evasick is a longtime dog aficionado who boards pooches on the side. Often she brings them into work with her. "Before I went into movies I managed a kennel in Connecticut, so I brought the dogs with me," she says.

Behind the counter, Ms. Evasick and Mr. Alley grapple with the constant need to find room for the 20,190 titles. The shelves extend to the ceiling and many of the VHS tapes are housed in the basement. Accommodating the growing number of titles in the limited space requires constant ingenuity. "We're creating space where there is none," Ms. Evasick says. "They may have told you it's impossible in physics class, but we do it here."

While there's talk in the media that digital downloads will end the era of video rentals, Ms. Evasick and Mr. Alley hold firm to their conviction that the personal touch of the video rental experience will keep the independent video store alive for years to come.

"There's still a certain kind of immediacy in coming to the store and walking out with something you wanted and having people who can talk to you about the movies and make recommendations," Mr. Alley says. "That's something you don't get in an online experience. As we've always said, this is an essential service, like hospitals or gas stations."

"And if you don't believe us, come in on a rainy or snowy day," Ms. Evasick adds.

Julian Wise is a frequent contributor to The Times, specializing in music, film, and the performing arts.